26 July 2008

Letter 2.49

Godawaya. Going for walks in the afternoon, sometimes I pass the fishing Village -- about 15 huts on the beach. The huts are made of cadjan in an arch shape, held in place by a framework of sticks and vines and tied with jungle creeper. The huts are about 10 feet by 20 feet on average-long and narrow -- but one hut is somewhat larger and serves as the native equivalent to the American drug-store -- tea, biscuits, tobacco, social life, can all be obtained there. A few mongrels sleep on the sand in front of this hut, waiting for a windfall. The village is still going up -- the fishermen have just moved to Godawaya for the half year when the wind comes from the NE. When it turns they take their houses down and sail off to another part of the island for the other half year.

In front of the huts are the boats -- each made from a hollowed-out coconut tree with clapboard sides built up, a mast in the center of the boat -- but many of the fishermen now have outboard motors -- Evinrude, Johnson, etc. -- and do not use their sails. The boat would capsize at once if it didn't have an elaborate outrigging on one side. Three men to a boat, they sit on narrow seats which leave no room at all for shifting weight, let alone moving about. Like fishing on a tight-rope. In the evening they push the boats into the sea, row some distance out from shore and then either start their engines or set their sails. At night their lights -- lanterns on each boat -- can be seen blinking on the horizon.

At night I've seen a curious phenomenon on the beach. While walking – only when the moon is up and nearly full -- where one has stepped, the sand glows green, and one can see his footprints phosphorescent for some minutes, as well as specks of sand that were kicked up while walking. Drawing pictures with a stick and watching the green lines appear (and disappear) is great fun (art is short, life is short).

Near midnight on a full moon night -- or nearly full -- the giant sea turtles come to land sometimes to lay their eggs. These turtles are about 4 feet across and 6 feet long -- i.e. their shells -- and they are very slow and stolid. Some distance above the high-tide mark the turtle will dig a hole with its front paws (claws? hands? feet?), shoving the sand about until there is a rather deep hole. Then it will ponderously crawl into the hole, clearing more sand as it does so, thus making the start of a trench, lay its eggs, and cover up the hole.

Now all along the beach people own 'turtle rights', and on appropriate nights they keep the turtle-vigil: if any turtle lays its eggs on 'their' land (though they do not own the land -- only the turtle-rights -- obtained from the turtles, I doubt) they will wait until the turtle (which takes absolutely no notice of anyone at all -- it is quite possible to ride on its back, and it will continue about its business as if it had no passenger) has finished laying its eggs, then remove the sand and collect them. One turtle can lay enough eggs -- each the size of a ping-pong ball -- to fill a bushel basket, and the eggs will fetch five (Ceylon) cents each in the market. As a result the giant sea turtle is -- like the elephant and the bhikkhu -- a dying race, and has all my sympathy. They will live, I'm told, for several centuries, so perhaps, will be able to wait for better times. The turtles themselves are never harmed, I'm told -- by a person who owns no turtle-rights -- that the turtle is considered an excellent creature (he pronounced anathema on the owners of turtle-rights) and related several stories of turtles doing good deeds, such as rescuing drowning sailors. I have never eaten turtle eggs (which are soft-shelled and look gooey), so can't say if they're any good.

In any case, I can see no good in eating them, and prefer peanuts. Sometimes I amuse myself by translating some Pali verses (from the Dhammapada) into English verse, and find it's rather like eating peanuts: as soon as I've done one I want another.

  The Truth having heard,
  the sage does become
  like a lake that's unstirred,
  sedate and unplumbed.
  (v. 82)

  Although a throng a million strong
  one might defeat on fighting field,
  by far the best is that conquest
  that over self one wields.
  (v. 103)

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